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Joanna Zylinska on Bioethics

Too close for comfort.eye Following on from my review of Bioethics in the Age of New Media, philosopher and cultural theorist Joanna Zylinska drops into the Game as our first philosophy guest! Join us as we discuss her ideas concerning a new ethics of life, one that moves beyond medical ethics and into the big questions about what life is, and how we respond to it.

Chris Bateman: I greatly enjoyed exploring your ideas in Bioethics in the Age of New Media. In the book you call yourself a ‘cultural theorist’ - why not a ‘cultural ethicist’?

Joanna Zylinska: I have been writing on ethics for many years now, both in relation to, and separately from, issues of new media. My ambition has always been to take ethics outside of its more traditional home of philosophy and situate it in a broader cultural domain. So, I’m very happy to subscribe to your ‘cultural ethicist’ moniker!

Chris: Do you see it as important to explore a cross-disciplinary approach to moral philosophy?

Joanna: Yes, certainly. Ethical issues – questions of value, of human conduct, of how to live our lives – are already very visibly present in the broader cultural domain. Witness how terms such as ‘business ethics’, ‘professional ethics’ or ‘medical ethics’ regularly feature in media debates. And yet, even though journalists, media experts as well as academics in many disciplines such as literature, sociology or sciences would agree that ethical questions are important, they ultimately tend to leave the ethical debate to the ‘professionals’, i.e. those trained in the domain of moral philosophy. As a result, the ethical debate often ends up being rather procedural, with questions of moral agency, political influence and economic interest already pre-decided in many of the paradigms which are applied to resolving so-called ethical dilemmas.

Chris: Was the starting point for Bioethics in the Age of New Media your thoughts about ethics in connection with the concept of life, or did you begin thinking about the various forms of new media and only later relate them to ethics?

Joanna: The two have always kind of developed in a parallel way in my head. But I have also realised that there is something very significant happening at the moment around questions of life and different forms of its mediation – via programmes such as the Human Genome Project, bioart projects such as Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny, or discussions around the extension and possible termination of life in case of the incurably ill – whereby we are all being asked to make decisions on life on a regular basis, notwithstanding our philosophical training. It seems that in the age of new technologies and new media, when life is being understood more and more as a technological process that can be adjusted and manipulated in various ways, we are all expected to be bioethics experts!

Chris: Yes, we see this in the increasing number of column inches devoted to public polls on issues such as genetic engineering or euthanasia.

Joanna: Indeed. When we’re faced with questions such as: ‘are you concerned about the possibility of cloning humans?’ or ‘on what grounds, if any, would you object to organ transplantation from pigs to humans?’, most people would be able and willing to come up with some kind of answer – even if this answer was to amount to mere opinion or something like ‘I’m not really sure’. When it comes to matters concerning our life and health, there is an understanding that they must not be left just to experts – philosophers, theologians, or doctors – and that all free thinking citizens in liberal democracies need to have a say about them. It is this shared understanding that my book attempts to tap into.

Chris: Is there a danger that these issues are being dealt with in a knee-jerk fashion? Is the debate being pre-empted?

Joanna: Yes, which is why I’m concerned about making sure that bioethical questions are answered ‘well’, that is to say, critically and responsibly, and that we do not just retreat to the most fixed ideological positions we hold when answering them. So ethics for me functions as a second-level reflection on how to think about moral positions and values – in this case, values concerning what most people hold dear – i.e. ‘life’.

Chris: Bioethics in the Age of New Media is very much about exploring what we mean when we say ‘life’.

Joanna: The book uses a rather expanded understanding of ‘life’ – from its biological connotations via DNA and the genes through to its broader socio-political contextualisation. This is why the bioethics I talk about has also an expanded meaning when compared to its more traditional counterpart (i.e. bioethics as a discipline dealing with issues concerning our health and medical interventions into it). I am trying to show in the book that in the age of new media bioethics has to deal not just with questions of the transformation of life on a biological level – via genomics, DNA sequencing, cloning, and so forth – but also in a broader political context, through question of the financing of the biotech industry, of immigration and asylum, of the normativity of cosmetic surgery, of biocitizenship, etc.

Chris: You call for a non-normative, non-humanist form of bioethics which is entirely different from what people usually think of in terms of ethics i.e. systems of universal ethical rules. Part of the foundation for this is the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas - what drew you to Levinas’ work?

Joanna: Levinas’ thought is immensely important for all kinds of work on ethics and politics, on being in the world, so the significance of Levinas’ project is not limited to philosophy considered as a discrete academic discipline. Levinas’ ideas were born out of a disappointment with what he calls ‘the complacency of modern philosophy’, which ‘prefers expectation to action, remaining indifferent to the other and to others’. His ethical theory is therefore more than a philosophy: it is also a call for action, for direct involvement, for the examination of lived lives – our own lives as well as lives of others. The place I occupy in the world for Levinas is never just mine. Instead, it belongs to the Other whom I may have oppressed, starved or driven away from my home, my country and my life. My life thus requires justification. I need to keep asking myself if my existence is not already a way of taking someone else’s place. For Levinas we always find ourselves standing before the face of the Other, which is both our accusation and a source of our ethical responsibility.

Chris: This concept of the Other is key to his work.

Joanna: Yes, his ethics shifts the focus of attention and concern from myself to the Other and is therefore a blow to human self-centredness. It is a philosophy of humility, but not in a traditional Christian sense, more in a sceptical sense of the recognition of one’s limitations. We may of course ignore these limitations, but to do so would be both tragic and foolish.

Chris: And you find this particularly applicable in the context of an ethics of life?

Joanna: Levinas’ thought is extremely helpful in providing a framework and a justification for caring about the life, any life, of the Other, especially the precarious and destitute lives of all those who lack recognition in the dominant political debates and policies, and those whose biological and political existence is confined to ‘zones of exception’: comatose patients, asylum seekers, refugees, people with non-normative bodies and looks, victims of biotech experimentation.

Chris: When you say ‘non-normative’ in this context, you mean people who don’t look like the way we have come to expect people to look? People who don’t fit the Hollywood cookie-cutter template of how a person should appear?

Joanna: Yes, absolutely – although I’m also concerned about other categories of exclusion; not just those that involve looks.

Chris: Levinas’ ethics is quite humanist in its approach, but you are clearly trying to push past this into a new space – that must create some difficulties for you.

Joanna: Yes, drawing on Levinas in an effort to develop a ‘post-humanist’ bioethics is not unproblematic. His theory suffers from an anthropological bias, which is evident, for example, in the excessive weighting he gives to human language. His notion of the Other needs to be expanded if, in the digital era, we are not sure any longer whether the Other who is before me is human or machinic, and whether the ‘fraternity’ Levinas talks about extends to all of DNA-kin (chimpanzees, dogs, bacteria).

Chris: By machinic, you mean to include artificial life, even though what we have currently in this space is not much more advanced than an insect, or a tropism that simply responds with pre-programmed responses?

Joanna: I am referring here to all the different theories, both scientific and sci-fi – from Blade Runner through to artificial life – that imagine the emergence of other beings whose status and physical make-up is uncertain, at least for the humans engaging with them. I agree with you that the outcomes of current experiments in the area of artificial life are rather limited, even if these experiments are accompanied by a lot of hype. However, I’m much more interested in general philosophical consequences of such an indeterminacy of being than in the actual outcomes of this or that experiment.

Chris: Madeleine Fagan and others have questioned the use of Levinas' concept of the Other (or the Third) as a basis for ethical politics, while acknowledging that Levinas was aspiring to make the ethical the priority over the political. She argues that if we take Levinas seriously we cannot easily separate ethics and politics, and perhaps that it might not be possible to derive political positions from such an abstract form of ethics, no matter how compelling it might be on an individual level. How would you respond to this criticism?

Joanna: I think there may be some kind of disparity here between what Levinas means when he says that ethics is prior to politics and what certain political theorists interpret as ethics being ‘more important than’ politics.

Chris: Can you elaborate?

Joanna: Levinas describes ethics as a first philosophy, which is situated before ontology.

Chris: Ontology being the study of being, of existence, which is usually considered foundational. ‘I think therefore I am’ and so forth.

Joanna: Yes, but not for Levinas. In his view ethics precedes, and makes demands on, ontology, on our being in the world, and thus also on politics.

Chris: ‘I face others, therefore I have responsibilities’.

Joanna: That’s a very good way of putting it. For Levinas the fact that I find myself standing before others who pre-exist me and who teach me the world has social and political consequences. But if politics is about social transformation and eradicating injustices of power, the decision as to what action to take and how to respond responsibly to an event we are faced with is already inscribed in the horizon of ethics. Should we refuse to acknowledge the ethical dimension in every political act, we risk reducing politics to the application of a rule, a software programme for repairing the world. From this perspective, ethics becomes a different mode of thinking, one which ‘precedes’ ontology in its relation to knowledge and justice. Instead of attempting to believe we have full knowledge about the Other (‘the Iraqi’, ‘the Muslim’, ‘the teenage mother’), ethics points to the radical and absolute ‘alterity’ (i.e., difference) of the Other which collapses the familiar order of Being and calls on every one of us to respond to this difference.

Chris: To recognise that even though we might believe we have knowledge of others, we can never actually be the Other, never actually know the Other – we can only respond to the Other.

Joanna: This temporary suspension of knowledge, coupled with the realisation that it is the Other that calls me into being as a moral and political subject, enables a more responsible and less arrogant politics. But politics also becomes a zone where different demands from different ‘Others’ compete, and where we have to resort to calculations and strategies in order to make the fairest decision we can in any given set of circumstances. Ethics does not relieve us of the responsibility of having to think about workable political solutions to issues of human and non-human life, in all its different permutations.

Chris: Is there a danger that this kind of ethics might be too difficult to implement politically?

Joanna: Well, the working out of political solutions, even though necessary, is not the work of ethics the way I understand this concept. Instead, Levinas-inspired bioethics can provide a stepping stone or a bridge to the work of already existent bioethics committees, policy making bodies, research councils – all those organisations, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK or the US-based President’s Council on Bioethics, that are engaged on a daily basis in making bioethics work. But we should also recognise that what most organisations and projects that have ‘bioethics’ in their title are doing is not ethics but rather politics.

Chris: Yes, I know what you mean – it’s all the logistical decision-making, as in the civil service and other aspects of the state-apparatus; making laws and procedures, or advising those people that implement such things. What are you hoping that they might do differently?

Joanna: I suppose my claim is that to do this work well, and not to fall into the process of just repeating and applying the already fixed frameworks and ideas we talked about earlier, all these organisations need a prior ethical supplement. So, rather than call for the radical reform or even abolishment of many of the traditional bioethics bodies in my attempt to think bioethics otherwise, my proposal is much more modest. The bioethics I propose is a pre-condition of ‘responsible biopolitics’ that is the task of committees, panels and policy-making bodies which deal with issues of human and non-human life, health, reproduction, etc. But it can also become, if need be, a form of bad conscience for such committees, panels and policy-making bodies.

Chris: An attempt to keep them ‘honest’? True to their duty?

Joanna: Yes, absolutely.

Chris: Throughout Bioethics in the Age of New Media you talk of ‘humans, animals and machines’ with the intent to blur or eliminate the usually assumed boundary conditions here – to think of these categories as not being pre-prescribed, but perhaps open to continual (re-) interpretation. Does that mean that you believe we must seriously ask ourselves if we should respect a machine (in the same way that you suggest we enquire ‘should we respect a carrot?’ in the context of genetically manipulating carrot DNA)?

Joanna: As new technologies and new media are constantly challenging our established ideas of what it means to be human and live a human life, they also command a transformation of the recognized moral frameworks through which we understand life, as well as a rethinking of who the moral subject is in the current circumstances. The so-called post-humanist critique calls into question the anthropocentric bias of our established ways of thinking – i.e. a belief that the human is situated at the top of the ‘chain of beings’ and that his special positioning entitles him to a particular set of consumerist and exploitative attitudes towards non-humans (mammals, fish, rainforests, the ecosphere as a whole, etc.).

Chris: But you’re not denying the concept of humanity?

Joanna: I am far from proposing a total rejection of the idea of ‘the human’ in ethics, and I’m not promoting some kind of special continuum, or the idea of a ‘life flow’. But the human – who I recognise is part of a complex natural-technical network and who actually only ever emerges in a dynamic way out of this network – is nevertheless presented with an ethical task of having to make decisions, always in an uncertain terrain, about life, in all its different incarnations and enactments.

Chris: In this respect I can’t resist asking you about robots and automata. Is an Aibo (Sony's robot dog) worthy of our respect in your view? What about an iPod or an automated phone response system? And what would (or could) respecting a machine mean?

Joanna: The question as to whether ‘we’ should respect a machine, a robot dog or an iPod are relevant and valid, provided we subject this ‘we’ to a rigorous critique. But I would also argue that, first, ethics is perhaps not so much about respect (because respect assumes that I’m already fully constituted as a moral agent before I encounter the Other, and then I can give this other my gift of recognition, care and kindness) but more about responsibility (which assumes that in whatever attitude I adopt towards the Other, I am already responding to the Other’s presence and demand).

Chris: I think for me the notion of responsibility implies a question of respect, but I accept that it need not.

Joanna: Sometimes withholding ‘respect’ might be the most responsible thing to do, depending on the circumstances. Also, the notion of the human – who in the instance that s/he takes up the ethical responsibility differentiates himself from carrots, machines and the general flow of life and flow of technology – does not disappear altogether in this theory, even if we raise some substantial questions for the humanist, anthropocentric assumptions around many traditional ethical positions.

Chris: And you relate this back to Levinas, even though his ethics is essentially humanist?

Joanna: What’s changed with regard to Levinas’ original theory in the bioethics I am proposing in my book is the expansion of the scope of obligations, beyond those exerted by singular human Others. For me the decision of those who call themselves human (with all the awareness of the historical and cultural baggage this term carries, and of the temporary and fragile nature of any such identification) is important in this ethical situation. In other words, ethics for me names a moment in which the human Other temporarily differentiates himself from the ‘flow of life’.

Chris: In order to take responsibility for it?

Joanna: Yes, but this does not amount to the celebration of human superiority; it is rather a practical mobilisation of the human skills (however compromised and imperfect) of critical reflexivity and decision-making. Now, the question of whether ‘animals’ or ‘machines’ should also engage in such ethical processes is irrelevant, even if we recognise that the features and behaviours that used to be seen as uniquely human, such as language, tool use and even culture, have recently been identified across the species barrier. It is irrelevant, because this responsibility only ever refers to ‘me’: a temporarily stabilised human who emerges in-relation-with human and non-human others.

Chris: You avoid advancing specific positions on the big bioethical questions such as abortion, euthanasia and genetic engineering, while simultaneously recognising their significance – you suggest we need to elevate these above other problems if we are to reasonably address them. Did you avoid advancing a specific position because you have no position to advance, because you don't want to pre-empt the discussion, or because you don't want to reduce interest in your work by rendering it partisan?

Joanna: I’d like to make a reservation here that, even though I am interested in ethics, I have no inclination to tell people how to live their lives, and what they should or shouldn’t do. Ethics for me is therefore different from ‘morality’, a set of rules of conduct that a given society establishes and then adheres to (or not). It is also different from politics. While arguably morality is something that sustains a particular social group – we can learn this, for example, from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents – it is also something that can become too restrictive and even oppressive, especially when it is used in the service of defending the most fixed and orthodox truths, assumptions and values. Morality can thus all too easily be used by various social agents – politicians, religious leaders, educators – to carry out the sometimes dirty work of politics by passing off socio-cultural assumptions as truths and goods in themselves, and thus foreclosing the terrain of the political debate.

Chris: You often refer to the risk of foreclosure on the specific ethical topics, which struck me as intriguing.

Joanna: Ethics for me is a supplement to both morality and politics; a prior demand on those of us who call themselves humans to respond to the difference of the world critically and responsibly, without taking recourse all too early to pre-decided half-truths, opinions, beliefs and political strategies. But, as I explained earlier, it is not something that can be ‘implemented’ once and for all or become a ‘practical tool’.

Chris: Can you realistically push towards a non-systematic bioethics without instantiating that concept in the context of at least one key example?

Joanna: The kind of bioethics I have in mind cannot be instantiated in one ‘key example’ because any such key example would inevitably take over and even colonise the need for open-ended critical work of bioethics by becoming a measuring stick against which other bioethical cases and dilemmas could be compared.

Chris: It would foreclose it, as you like to say.

Joanna: Precisely. Having said that, in the book I discuss multiple bioethical scenarios and events which arise in the context of cosmetic surgery, abortion, cloning, genetic testing or art practice which uses biomaterial, and suggest a framework for thinking ethically about all these different cases. I realise that, with regard to such important and often scandalising issues, there may be something rather frustrating about a bioethics that refuses to evaluate in advance the morality of the agents involved in the transformation of life as we know it. But I’m adamant that bioethics should not just provide us with a definitive set of values concerning DNA, foetuses, lab animals, in advance; nor should it resolve once and for all whether people should or should not engage in genomic transformation, have breast augmentation or even have an ear implanted on their arm the way the Australian artist Stelarc did.

Chris: You want to open the debate on bioethics, not to foreclose it.

Joanna: Well, my intention is to shift the parameters of the ethical debate from an individualistic problem-based moral paradigm in which rules can be rationally, strategically worked out on the basis of a previously agreed principle, to a broader political context in which individual decisions are always involved in complex relations of power, economy, and ideology. This in itself is a rather big task – which, if undertaken seriously, can have radical and far-reaching consequences for our ideas of ‘the human’, ‘animal’, ‘politics’, ‘nature’ and ‘life’ itself.

Joanna Zylinska’s Bioethics in the Age of New Media is available now from all good bookstores. The opening image is from Joanna's photo gallery Too close for comfort, which can be viewed on her website, and is used with permission.


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